Over the past few years, the United Kingdom has developed a fairly robust market for hyperlocal experimentation. A recent study by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) charitable foundation, found that a majority of British respondents were consuming more hyperlocal content than they had in previous years — and outlined how certain regions of the country appeared to be more supportive of hyperlocal newsmedia.
To get a better sense of how hyperlocal is faring across the pond, Street Fight recently caught up with U.K. publisher Dave Harte, who, in addition to lecturing at Birmingham City University, runs the independent news site Bournville Village. He spoke with us about the balance between businesses and business models, the hidden economic value of citizen journalism, and what local sites in the U.S. might learn from their U.K. counterparts.
What does hyperlocal mean to people in the U.K.?
There are two hyperlocal visions in peoples’ heads in the U.K. One is a commercially-oriented version by which people often think of auto-aggregating local content services that pull together offers from local businesses. Then, there’s more civic-oriented news-gathering and news-producing hyperlocal. Oftentimes, the two get conflated. Then again, sometimes they are talked about like they never come together. But there’s a lot of chatter about hyperlocal.
What are you most excited about in hyperlocal these days?
A couple of things. The first one is that there’s been a general interest from a U.K. communications policy standpoint for quite awhile. Britain constantly worries about how our citizens receive news. The decline of the local press and the local news in broadcasting has allowed attention on hyperlocal. Nobody seemed to know what would fill the gap when local newspapers and local broadcasters retreated. Hyperlocal looks like it might fill that gap, so you have interest from policymakers, politicians, and associated organizations like NESTA, which wants to make sure citizens are getting enough news at the local level. This background policy interest is quite healthy.
The other thing that excites me is that there is more activity going on. We have a database that continues to grow, either because people are finding more sites that were already there or because people are starting more. It hasn’t gone away.
What about the business side of things?
The business model feels less mature, or further behind, than the U.S. scene. Interestingly, I think you find some nice innovations that have been successful but at a smaller scale. There’s a website in London called the Kentish Towner, which is now branching into a print version. There’s an organization called One and Other in York who are the coolest kids in town — the Web and print stuff is beautiful, and they seem to be doing okay. There’s a hyperlocal that started in Welsh port in Wales that is now branching out into three or four towns. They are being modestly successful.
We went through this period where Northcliffe Media started a Local People franchise where you would be a local content generator and pick up local advertising. That didn’t quite work. The Guardian’s attempt to do it on a city-wide basis lasted for about 18 months. I think we’re in a place where the larger media organizations are in the second cycle of trying to rethink hyperlocal, and in the meantime there have been some smaller innovators, often ex-journalists themselves, who are starting to develop out of it.
The key still remains having people in place to sell ads. There’s a guy called Rick Waghorn who is involved in the About My Area platform that is very much a content aggregator but effectively has a website for every single postcode in the U.K. He’s all about the advertisers. He thinks that even at small levels you can make this work, but you have to focus on the advertisers. He’s spent a lot of time experimenting, both as a one-man band and as a bigger content aggregation system.
It seems to me that a few of the smaller innovators are starting to think that web isn’t at the center of everything, that they can have print as well. That seems to work for them.
Could you see a bigger company coming in and trying to do something like what AOL is trying with Patch?
I can’t, because the new kid on the block is television. The new conservative government wants to focus on local TV. The line they used to spin was “how come Birmingham, Alabama has a dozen local TV stations and Birmingham U.K. has none?” They did a licensing system for local stations – none of which have come online yet, but there are about 30 cities with licenses that are starting at the end of 2013, early 2014. You have new competition for those local adverts, and I think that will in some ways set back the potential for successful large-scale hyperlocal operations. But I actually think that one of the side benefits is that the amateur, civic-based sites will have a space.
I run one here in Bourneville, and I think the people who run sites with a different motivation [other than money], be it about community cohesion or whatever will still find a space to operate in. But I think local TV changes the commercial landscape of hyperlocal very much. We’re a year away from knowing the full impact of that.
Do you think there’s hidden economic potential in the type of local site you run?
I do. Awhile back, I took a picture of a train that was going through town carrying nuclear waste. … I got a phone call from the local newspaper asking if they could, essentially, sell my pic on, with no sense that I would get any financial benefit. It makes me think that you almost have a little ecosystem developing where you have hyperlocals that are naive about the commercial nature of how stories have an economic life as they make their way from local to national to syndication.
We’re an ecosystem for local journalists, as soon as it hits the press it has its own economic life. I think there’s an uncounted economic potential that comes from hyperlocal that comes from this naïve group of hobbyists of which there seem to be a lot in the U.K. The local paper in Birmingham has very few journalists on the ground, but what it does have is 20-something hyperlocal operations from which it can pick up news on an RSS feed or a Twitter feed. I wonder what you would learn if you worked out that economic value of that.
Noah Davis is a senior editor at Street Fight. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.